Often referred to as “the teardrop of India,” I found nothing sad about Sri Lanka. Perched just above the equator, the island is fringed with idyllic beaches splashed by the balmy Indian Ocean. A mountainous center, tea plantations and jungle safaris add to its appeal.
While much of coast is undeveloped, beach clubs and luxury hotels are moving in as more travelers discover this gem. The up-and-coming beach areas stretch across the southwest coast, ranging from the Portuguese colonial town of Galle and its quickly developing neighbor Unawatuna to Mirissa, the whale-watching capital.
I quickly discovered my favorite hideout, Angel Beach Club, just outside Unawatuna. It mixed a slow vibe with enough perks to keep me pampered, such as a beachfront swing, sunbeds, a swim-up bar and live music. And, of course, they had a fantastic cocktail list, with many of the choices showcasing local ingredients.
The local spirits include arrack, produced from the sap of coconut flowers, and my favorite, rum. I observed the Sri Lankans had a peculiar way of describing their rum. Whereas rum most often goes by light/white or dark/aged, the locals use the slightly frightening term “red rum” for the latter (yes, just like little Danny Torrance in “The Shining”).
I was greeted by bartender Srimal Athapaattu, a bespectacled man decked out in a white uniform with a hat like the Skipper and a smile like Gilligan from the 1960s island sitcom. His ebullient personality showed that he was eager to satisfy his customers.
The bar was lined with jars of spices, dried fruits, bitters and herbs — common ingredients in Sri Lanka, the founding place of Ayurvedic medicine. The country is also home to a plethora of fresh fruit year-round, including the sweetest pineapples I’ve ever eaten.
As I watched Srimal work his magic mixing his potent potions, I began to feel like I was more in the company of the Professor, rather than the Skipper or Gilligan. While Sri Lanka is hardly a deserted isle, it was a peaceful haven when compared with the crowded beaches elsewhere.
The booze that piqued my interest was Angel Beach’s house-infused rum, forged from Rockland’s (a Sri Lankan brand) white rum and lime peels. Although the spirit was only aged for one year, it had a more complex flavor than expected. A sugary smack like pastry was tempered by the lime and finished with a refreshing note.
This rum is the star of one of the beach club’s most popular cocktails, the Basil Beauty. The drink is a mixture of what Srimal described as some of the finest Sri Lankan ingredients: pineapple, passion fruit, coconut and basil.
The Basil Beauty has a frothy appearance, with a chartreuse hue from the fruit and basil and a strong tropical nose.
It hit my taste buds like a cyclone. It started with a strong, sweet citrus flavor from the infused rum, followed by a burst of passion-fruit pucker. The tart punch was rounded out by sweetness from the pineapple and coconut cream.
It went down smoothly and quickly; I was soon ready for another. With a menu full of impressive tipples, I could have easily spent my entire two-week holiday here … if only I had Mr. Howell to pick up my bar tab.
While many are stuck at home self-isolating, mixing up one of these drinks can take you on a virtual vacation to your own deserted island paradise.
The Basil Beauty
10 Asian basil leaves
45 ml lemon-infused white rum
30 ml fresh pineapple juice
20 ml fresh passion fruit juice
I bar spoon coconut cream
15 ml lime juice
Dash of Bitter Truth lemon bitters
Rub basil leaves between your hands to release the oil. Then muddle in a cocktail shaker. Add remaining ingredients and shake until well mixed. Strain, pour into a martini glass and garnish with a basil leaf.